‘All the little things’: Lynette Willoughby in conversation with Coreen McGuire

by Coreen McGuire

Lynette Willoughby walking on Kinder Scout (Wikicommons)

‘Toughness can be your persistence, can be your staying power—your resilience.’

Lynette Willoughby was good at maths and liked physics, but her primary school teachers were not optimistic about her chances of passing the eleven plus exam. She tells me that, ‘they didn’t really expect me to pass simply because they thought that I didn’t concentrate or work hard enough, which was probably true’.

However, Lynette successfully passed the exam to gain a place in a Grammar School in Bermondsey in South London, which she describes as ‘a really good school that had a brilliant Headmistress. It was the kind of school that encouraged you to do whatever you wanted―they didn’t have any preconceived notions of what you should do’.

It was there that Lynette was first exposed to the power of good teaching, as Lynette describes:

[My] brilliant physics teacher, Mrs Harris, took us to the Royal Institution Christmas lectures two years running. And I thought they were fantastic. And I thought when I grow up, I want to be like them. And that’s why I always had this idea of being a lecturer as something I wanted to do but also a scientist of some sort, because I thought those things were just amazing.

Lynette knew that she needed to work for a living and was the first in her family to go to University, where she studied Electronic Engineering in part because she felt that it, ‘joins maths and physics together, and is the socially useful thing to do’.

The need to do something socially useful was instilled in her due to her mother’s political activism, Lynette explains that ‘I was very politically involved from an early age, and I grew up with a strong sense that you should be contributing to society’.

Lynette has continued to be politically active throughout her life and explains that she was shaped by her experience of ‘not having’.

She tells me

I thought it was normal. And I never felt [it]. I knew that other people got presents. That that were things that I would ever dream of affording, but it didn’t bother me as such―my mother smoked very heavily throughout the whole of her adult life. And when we were little, she used to smoke Kensistas, and with Kensistas you got coupons, and they sent around big catalogues, a precursor of green shield stamps. And when it came to say Christmas or a birthday Mother would literally say to us “I have got so many coupons. Here is the catalogue. Choose your present from what I can afford to buy with my Kensistas coupons”.

And if I describe that it sounds kind of horrendous. But to me, that was fine, because there were plenty of things in this catalogue that I liked, that I wanted. I was a very practical child so I would say, “yes, I’ll have these things, I’ll have this case, I’ll have these tools!”

One t-shirt and a pair of jeans

Lynette did not let financial challenges impact on her student experience at the University of Surrey. She tells me this was, ‘partly because of my politics … I was like Janis Joplin in one sense, I had one t-shirt and a pair of jeans and that was enough. I used to go on demonstrations and political meetings and socialise in very left-wing circles in which there were none of those expectations [of wealth]’.

Neither was she impacted by the gender imbalance in her class. ‘I was the only girl in the class of 40 boys, which was fairly normal in those days and that didn’t bother me having grown up with three older brothers, I used to get in as good as I got. That wasn’t a problem’.

Nevertheless Lynette did struggle with the style of teaching at university, which she describes vividly; ‘the lectures were dire. A lecturer would come in, start talking at us―cover the whiteboard with incomprehensible equations and you just copied them all down. You didn’t understand what was going on, and then they’d go out…’.

Lynette was disillusioned with the education and teaching she had received and so decided to research better ways of teaching science and engineering:

There was a guy called Lewis Elton [Ben Elton’s father] and he was my Professor of Physics at university. And he was brilliant —a great physicist, but also a great educator. He set up at the Surrey University Institute for Educational Technology and I saw that they were offering research studentships. Usually, you would not get on to postgraduate education without a First, but Lewis was very insightful and very forward thinking.

So, when I applied, he took me on to do an MPhil in educational technology—doing research on alternative ways of teaching science and engineering at University. It was something called the Keller Plan. It was an alternative to standing up and giving lectures. That was a brilliant time. Lewis was an amazing professor and amazing person, one of the two really good lecturers I’d had as an undergraduate.

Lynette was then able to incorporate these insights and strategies when she went on to teach in Leeds.

‘My life is full of things I hated doing’

Lynette took up caving when she was at university and explains that her subsequent move back to Yorkshire (where she was born) was motivated by her interest in caving:

The caves in Yorkshire are the best. I moved to Leeds because I needed a job. And as a science/engineering graduate, I could get a job teaching without having done a teaching qualification. I did not particularly want to be a teacher, but I wanted to move to Yorkshire, because it was Yorkshire and it was near the caves. So, I got a job as a schoolteacher in Leeds.

Lynette emphasises that her career path in life has been motivated by chance more than planning, and muses that, ‘there are few people, fewer women, who have a clear idea of where they want to go and what they want to do. Most people, I think it’s more like… something happens, it’s random… and that is in a sense the way my career’s gone. Somethings cropped up—something went right, something went wrong. You changed. And then you stick with it or not’.

However, Lynette does emphasise that she hated teaching in the school set-up. ‘My life is full of things I hated doing. But what surprised me was that I liked the actual teaching, I liked the kids. I didn’t think I’d like teaching children, but actually I did—what I hated was the school setup’.

She taught in the school for two years, but then moved on to help set up the East Leeds Women’s Workshops, part of an EU funded scheme to provide engineering training for women in jobs where women were typically under-represented.

Lynette explains ‘the idea was we would teach them basic electronics and basic computing, but in fact what we were teaching them was self-confidence. And that was really the most important thing. It was about showing them how to learn’. Lynette took this ethos with her when she started working as a technology counsellor for the Open University.

It was thanks to her involvement with the OU that she was introduced to the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) which she was president of between 1993–1995. Lynette relates various examples of sexism she encountered while going to the annual dinners of the other engineering societies.

For instance, she tells me about a legendary dinner of one society, which took place before her time with WES, where they would have ‘the wives of members have dinner in a separate room. And then at the end of the dinner they would be allowed to come out into a balcony in the main room to listen to the end of dinner speeches’.

Good legs: short skirts

I ask Lynette more about how WES and similar initiatives can combat this kind of everyday sexism, and she tells me that the issues revolve around respect, rather than special treatment.

She explains that she hated being treated differently when she worked in industry:

This was in 1971-2, 1971 and I wore very short skirts. I wasn’t particularly glamorous or good looking but I had good legs. I would go into this workshop and to go into the office there was this open metal staircase going up the side. And so of course I had to walk all the way up this very long tall staircase. And it didn’t bother me that all the guys on the shop floor will have been looking at these legs going up there―legs they do not normally see.

The problem was that I went to have something made up and I had made a mistake in my calculation. So I phoned them up, and the guys that I worked with all said, “you’re going to be in real trouble if you go to the workshops, they’re going to give you a really hard time if they’ve made up this panel and you’ve made a mistake”

So I phoned them up and they said that’s okay, in fact they didn’t make a fuss at all. They didn’t expect me as a girl to have got it right, I would have rather been really told off―hauled over the coals and told off for getting it wrong, than treated as this special case…

I ask whether, looking back, if it would have been helpful to have had more support or to have had more women around her during this time. Lynette agrees that

If there had been more women around, I might have taken to the engineering better, there was always in engineering circles this idea that teaching wasn’t being a real engineer. I thought I should work in industry to get some cred points as an engineer, as it were. It would have been good if there had been something like a WES group there, that would have given me a lot of support. I think these things do have an impact on you.

I think we live in a patriarchal society and there is definite discrimination but at the same time, it is not total. It is probably systematic, but it is increasingly invisible now. There are all sorts of challenges. And you kind of toughen up. I was listening to a Raymond Chandler audiobook. And there was this quote where he [the main character] says ‘If I wasn’t hard. I wouldn’t be alive, but if I couldn’t ever be gentle, I wouldn’t deserve to be alive’. And that is kind of my thought. It is sort of the little things that have an effect on you but then all sorts of other things have a psychological deep effect on you.

It links up with being a Yorkshire person too. Because archetypal Yorkshire people are supposed to be tough. In something like engineering, there was a culture of being tough amongst the men.

And so, I think what we need is our alternative cultures in every sphere. There are different ways of being tough, toughness can be your persistence, can be your staying power―your resilience. But, that’s not necessarily at the forefront in your workplace―workplaces should have support mechanisms in place. But for everybody. And actually, every single area, whether it’s work or outside of work —benefits from having a true mix of people, it is the mix of people that makes for a good team and a good organisation, because they all bring different insights into the situation and into any problem solving.

After working at the Open University, Lynette gained a position at Leeds Beckett (Leeds Met) University, where she worked as a lecturer until retirement. I ask Lynette about how she wants her varied career to be remembered, and she asks me if I remember when Tony Blair was Prime Minister. I tell her that I do, and she explains that at that time

There was some advertising to get people to go into teaching. And these famous people would stand up and say, “I remember this teacher”. And I would say thank you to my physics teacher, Mrs Harris. She was a lovely teacher and lovely woman. And Lewis Elton, who was also a brilliant teacher.

And I think of the people that have inspired me to do the things that I have done, and what I would hope is that it’s passed on. You hope that you help someone and that you help someone to realise what they are. You facilitate it, you help them to be what they are. That’s all you can hope for.

I don’t think I’ve ever taught anyone who then became a brilliant inventor or a brilliant Nobel Prize winning scientist or something. You don’t necessarily… but maybe somewhere along the line you’ve contributed to it. That’s all I can really hope for. Little things like that. It’s no great big one achievement. It’s lots of little things that you hope will go a long way.